Martin Baron, Executive Editor of The Washington Post, today delivered an address entitled “Media, journalism, and the future of news in the Digital Age” at Florida International University as part of the Hearst Distinguished Lecture Series. His complete remarks available below.
Thank you for inviting me to join you today. This is a school I’ve watched grow and mature over many years — first when I was a reporter at The Miami Herald in the late 1970s, shortly after the university opened in 1972, and then as editor of The Miami Herald in 2000 and 2001.
I’ve always had a fondness for FIU. The students come with no sense of entitlement and few, if any, inherited advantages. They come only with aspirations and the goal of achievement. They rely on hard work, ingenuity, a spirit of possibility, and a determination to seize on opportunity.
For those entering the field of media, those are qualities you will need. If you get the sense that everything must be earned and nothing will be given to you – that nothing will come easy — then your expectations are just right for this field.
You enter at a time of upheaval. Nothing in media – not journalism, not advertising, not communications of any type – remains at rest. It is not what it was 10 years ago. It is not what it was 5 years ago. It is not what it will be 5 years from now, or even two.
That turbulence can be unsettling. A certain seasickness, or air sickness, is familiar to all of us who work in the profession.
But the upheaval means unparalleled opportunities for those who are willing to learn what they need – and know that the learning must never stop. Many veterans in the field will check out – weary, frustrated, maybe upset. But you can check in, if you’re smart about it.
To enter this field now, there is perhaps only one inescapable requirement: You must be an optimist.
I made this point earlier this year — in a previous speech, at another university. It received more attention than I could have imagined. To me, the idea did not seem so radical. Yet perhaps it really was – when you consider the buyouts and the layoffs, when you hear from those who wish all the change would just stop.
Well, the change won’t stop. And what I said in that previous speech is what I’ll say again today. There is no acceptable alternative to optimism. Here’s why.
If you get into this arena, you will be required to recognize opportunities and seize on them. You can only do this if you anticipate that you will succeed.
If you are not optimistic, why would you work to succeed? What use would it be? And if you are not working to succeed, no matter the challenges you face, you are not working as you should.
That does not mean your goals will be easy to accomplish. You may fail a few times before you attain them. What you tried first may not be the best idea. You will have to try again. But you must keep trying.
I am optimistic, and I am proud to work at an organization that is experimenting in all sorts of ways – not certain that everything will work, but confident that some will. And when we find things that don’t work, we’ll try something else.
We’ll do that without feeling embarrassed that something didn’t go right. Without worrying about what pundits say. We’ll move ahead without any sense of defeat.
We’ll take the next step with the knowledge that obstacles are not permanent barriers. Obstacles exist to be overcome.
There is a quote I like, and it comes from the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Bernard Lown, who won the prize in 1985, was a founder of International Physicians for Peace, and was an advocate of a continued moratorium on nuclear testing.
Here’s what he said: “Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible.”
The point is this: What seems impossible is possible. And what today is not visible can be imagined … can be pursued … and gives us purpose.
Honesty requires those of us in media to acknowledge that we’ve missed opportunities, moved too slowly, and at times stubbornly resisted the inevitable.
But in this field – and people forget this — we’ve also overcome a lot. And that should give us confidence that we can overcome the obstacles that confront us today.
More than two decades ago, while I was a senior editor at The Los Angeles Times, our top editor hosted a lunch for entrepreneur Ted Turner. He had just created CNN, the first 24-hour news network. He was proud, understandably so. His new network promised to shake up the media landscape. He had many doubters. He expected to defy them.
The Los Angeles Times provided our distinguished guest a wonderful meal. But that hospitality didn’t keep Ted Turner from speaking his mind. Nothing ever did.
He bluntly told the journalists who were hosting him, “In 10 years, you’ll be out of business.”
By Turner’s figuring, this would happen because he was going to make it happen. With his 24-hour cable news channel.
Well, Ted Turner was wrong. Our industry and our profession survived 24-hour cable news. We’re still doing good work. We’re still a major force in the media ecosystem. We’re still setting the news agenda for our communities and the country.
But we have to admit: It has been a really tough stretch. It’s worth recalling just how disruptive forces in the media industry have been. And just how recent.
What changed everything for us? It was not 24-hour cable news. It was high-speed broadband. And that only became pervasive in the middle of the last decade — 2004, 2005. It allowed super-fast Internet connections. It allowed photos to load fast and allowed instant viewing of videos — and perhaps most urgently today, it allows mobile connection to the web.
Look what happened. And look how fast:
• Google wasn’t founded until 1998 and didn’t go public until 2004. Google News didn’t come out of beta until 2006. Today, there are more than 3 billion searches a day on Google.
• Facebook was founded in 2004. Now it has more than 1.3 billion monthly active users.
• YouTube was founded in 2005. More than 1 billion people now visit YouTube each month. More than 6 billion hours of video are watched every month.
• Twitter was founded in 2006. A half-billion tweets are sent every day.
• Kindle was introduced in 2007. Last year, three in 10 Americans read an e-book.
• Apple introduced the iPhone in June, 2007. We’re now getting close to 2 billion smartphone users worldwide.
• Instagram was founded in 2009.
• The iPad was introduced in January, 2010.
• Vine was started just two years ago, and then, with only three employees, was quickly bought by Twitter.
So, there you go: That’s what we’ve seen in just the last decade. Is change like that fast enough for you? Things probably will get faster.
The new media landscape has led to a migration of the public away from traditional sources of news. Maybe you find your news on Facebook – founded only a decade ago — or on Twitter, or Google News, or some new web site, like BuzzFeed, TMZ, or Vice.
In many instances – on Google, Facebook, or Twitter, for example — it’s the news of traditional news organizations you’re reading. But you’re spending most of your time on those sites instead of ours. They are your first stop, and the place you return. And so you may have little or no loyalty to any one news brand.
The omnipresent nature of the Internet in our lives has also led to a migration of advertisers. Classified advertising has virtually disappeared. Craigslist alone has drained a huge amount of lucrative classified advertising away from newspapers. Other print advertising followed classifieds off the cliff.
Google is an advertising powerhouse: You’re doing a search on a product. A company selling that product now knows of your interest, and ads can appear with your search. In fact, those ads can follow you as you travel around the web.
If Facebook and Google are where people tend to go first, they will attract a huge share of advertising. And that’s what has happened, and continues to happen.
What gave rise to our industry, the printing press, also once shielded us from competitors. It was expensive to build presses, buy paper, buy ink, and buy delivery trucks. Delivering news and information now doesn’t require any of that. You can be an international television network by turning on the camera that comes with your computer, or phone. You can be your own publisher.
Things won’t get any easier. Because…
…the pace at which we’re becoming a digital society is accelerating…
…information is going to become fully mobile, and the economics of mobile are even more uncertain than what we’ve seen to date with the web…
…our field will become more competitive, and – just as economic theory would predict – profit margins will stay low, financial pressures will intensify.
Yet our survival to date despite an onslaught of technological change suggests we have considerable strengths, more than many might have thought.
We have been more resilient than people give us credit for. We have been more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.
Still, there’s no room for self-satisfaction, for self-congratulation, for complacency.
We can’t live in the past. This game of Survivor is not over, not by a long shot. And the goal of enduring profitability remains just that, a goal.
We must look ahead. We have no choice. And we have no choice but to innovate and experiment.
There will be no one thing, no “silver bullet,” to quote-unquote “save journalism.” The answers, I believe, will be found in our doing many things.
And, though some keep wondering why someone hasn’t concocted the magic solution, in truth our future doesn’t depend on dreaming up something uniquely spectacular.
Here’s a telling little fact for you – and I’m not the first to mention it: We put a man on the moon before we put wheels on luggage. And yet wheels on luggage, this unexciting act of innovation, actually changed lives. They have dramatically improved the experience of travelers. They transformed the luggage industry that had previously changed little. And they were a commercial success. They are now standard equipment.
So, what’s the lesson here? Our industry doesn’t require a moonshot. We might just need something like wheels on luggage. And a few other things like that.
Success in digital media is not uniquely available to a new breed of prophets, mystics, and geniuses. It’s available to all of us, if we adapt smartly – and urgently and enthusiastically — to what readers want and need in a new information environment.
No doubt you want to know what skills you’ll need to be successful. A lot should, by now, be obvious.
Let’s just stipulate, for those of you who intend to be journalists, that you must learn how to report well – fairly, honestly, accurately, digging beneath the surface for the real story, holding government and powerful interests of all types accountable to citizens, consumers, workers, the vast majority of people.
Let’s just stipulate that you need to know how to write, how to string words together so that your ideas and message are clear – and, at best, so that your use of language engages, enthralls, excites those who read you. So that you draw people deep into a world apart from their own, so that they see things in a fresh light, so that what you write provokes wonder and thought.
Let’s stipulate that you need to be curious about the world around you, that you’re more intrigued by what you don’t know than impressed by what you know, and that you have an appetite to gain real insights wherever you can.
Let’s also stipulate that you need to learn contemporary skills of video, audio, basic coding, data collection and analysis, how to make your own charts, things of that sort. These are now tools of the profession, and your journalistic carpentry will be incomplete, even deficient, without them.
Let’s just stipulate that you must master new forms of storytelling that have emerged — that draw upon data visualization and video and interactive graphics and links and supplemental material for readers who wish to know more.
Let’s just stipulate that you need to be comfortable with the contemporary ways people receive and process information – that you will need to be expert in social media, how to use it as a reporting tool and how to use it to promote your stories because promoting your own stories is now your own responsibility.
Let’s just stipulate that the web is a different medium, that it calls for an approach that is different from newspapers – just as radio required an approach that was different from newspapers, and TV required an approach that was different from radio. And, I’d add, delivering information on mobile devices may demand an approach that is different from the way we’ve done things on the desktop computer.
I say, “let’s just stipulate” to all that for a reason — because all of that is no longer in question. If you were wondering about any of it, wonder no longer.
What’s not often said is that our field will require a different kind of person. We will require more than just employees. That’s what we needed in the past. Now we will need entrepreneurs.
Journalists will have to be entrepreneurs. You will be creating entirely new companies. Or you will be working in entrepreneurial ventures that will constantly expect inspired and innovative ideas. You will have to become an entrepreneur within larger organizations, too – because they need to compete with start-ups and smaller, more nimble outfits … and because you will be asked to transform organizations that have stood strong for decades but now worry endlessly about making it through tomorrow. You will need to understand your own readership, to help build it, to market your own work.
The demand for journalistic entrepreneurs, with all the right skills I talked about, is big and growing. Media is an everyday, growing part of our lives – and the media industry, writ large, is growing, too. Don’t let the anguish you hear from certain corners of our business fool you. Don’t let it discourage you, or dissuade you from pursuing your passion.
New journalism outfits are popping up all over. Capital is available to fund them. And older journalistic institutions feel ever greater urgency to remake themselves for the digital era we all inhabit.
It used to be you had to wait in the back of the line for an amazingly good job in our field. Now you can move with astonishing speed to the front. You really can.
It used to be we would hire people who could learn from us. Now we hire people who can teach us something we don’t know.
And we have a lot to learn. We have to learn it fast. You have an opportunity, if you do the right things, to be one of those people our industry absolutely must have.
Finally, let me talk about something that almost never gets mentioned in a discussion of the future of journalism. It happens to be the most important thing that remains the same. In fact, it is the most important thing of all. And it is this: Nothing is more important than having a good idea.
Even more important than the fancy tools you use will be the thinking you do. More important than the mechanics of our business will be your own mind.
You cannot deliver a good story without a good idea for one – and good ideas about how to construct that story. You cannot have a successful new product if it is not rooted in a smart idea.
Somehow this has gotten lost in a world consumed with metrics – the discipline of measuring how well we’re performing. It’s not that we don’t need metrics. We do. But metrics focus on results. The idea is where you start.
Metrics can tell you how you did. But they will not tell you what to work on. To do that, you will need imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, insight. You will need a good idea.
You will have to take your mind to work, and you will have to put your mind to work. Never set it to auto-pilot. Never leave it in sleep mode. Every day, give your mind a workout. Because good ideas will matter above all.
Thank you again for inviting me.